Amid the callous whims of Hollywood, a screenplay can be written only to gather snow bluffs of dust for years on some executive's shelf. It's happened to countless screenwriters, big and small, a kind of torture as one's toil languishes unseen. In the mid-'90s, Robert Rodriguez was tapped by Fox to write an installment in the "Predator" sci-fi-thriller franchise. His next movie, "Desperado," a semi-sequel to his smash low-budget wonder "El Mariachi," had been stalled by the studio's financial woes after the colossal flop of "The Last Action Hero."
Looking back at "Predators 2," a critical bomb — the 1990 film, starring Danny Glover and Gary Busey, earned a withering 24-percent score at Rotten Tomatoes — Rodriguez proposed rebooting the entire franchise. He wanted to return to the roots of "Predator," the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger cult classic about a group of commandos hunted by a giant, dreadlocked creature in the jungle.
"I pretended that ‘Predator 2' never existed. There'd be a (load) of Predator creatures, back in the jungle, not the urban jungle as in the sequel, but another planet, giving you the feeling of the first film," Rodriguez says. In a nod to James Cameron's "Alien" sequel, "Aliens," the filmmaker titled his re-do "Predators."
The studio was jazzed, and even asked Rodriguez to write a part for Schwarzenegger, who declined. Then the "Alien vs. Predator" comics were published, and the franchise followed that lead with two poorly received movie adaptations. Rodriguez's script was shelved. It gathered dust.
Until now. Fox recently exhumed Rodriguez's "Predators" screenplay with a flush of excitement. The time seemed right for a new "Predator" film, one that would rinse the sour aftertaste of "Predator 2" and the mercenary "Alien vs. Predator" movies from fans' mouths. Rodriguez jumped.
In March, Rodriguez, local hero of Austin filmmaking, is sitting on a sofa in an Austin hotel suite. He looks tired, scruffy-faced, speaking in a slighty raspy hush. Yet he emits the afterglow of the previous night's success, when he presented a special sneak preview of trailers and stills from "Predators" on opening night of the South by Southwest Film Festival. It packed the 187-capacity Alamo Ritz with excited fanboys, frantic publicists and curious press. The film opens today.
Rodriguez's "Predators" is directed by Nimród Antal ("Kontroll," "Armored"), the always-busy Rodriguez serving as co-writer and producer with Elizabeth Avellán. He hand-picked writers Michael Finch and Alex Litvak to brush up his original script while he was working on other projects, including "Machete."
"I saw how they could write very individual-type characters from different backgrounds who have to group together," Rodriguez says. "That was an element I wanted. Rather than have the characters be of one unit, I wanted separate characters from different parts of the world. A motley crew of killers who have to work together reluctantly. It feels totally realistic, less fantasy."
The patchwork crew includes Adrien Brody, Topher Grace, Danny Trejo and Laurence Fishburne. The cost for "Predators" fell in the relatively cheap $40 million range, a remarkable price tag for a high-action movie with that caliber of actors, Rodriguez says.
"The cast is fantastic. They remind me of the cast of ‘Aliens,' " he says. "They're so excited about the movie. They're thinking of all these guerrilla ways to get the movie out there."
The multitasking filmmaker versed Antal in making a movie swiftly and cheaply — the Rodriguez way.
"It was a really quick learning curve. I worked with him for about two weeks and showed him how we do things at Troublemaker Studios, how we really save money, how we're able to make the movie look really big," Rodriguez says.
Filming in Hawaii and Austin, Rodriguez, Antal and the crew faked many of the jungle scenes in the Austin area, hauling in tropical plants and shooting at McKinney Falls and Hamilton Pool.
"Some places look like another planet. One section looks like the moon," Rodriguez says with a laugh. "The studio was wondering where the (heck) we shot it."
"Predators" unleashes a whole new nightmare of alien creatures on the humans who are being hunted.
"We worked really hard on the human characters and decided we couldn't just have regular Predators running around. Each has to have a very distinct personality, an attachment of some sort that ties into their hunting techniques. One has hunting dogs; another has a falcon that can see everything.
"You're pretty much screwed anywhere you are on the planet," Rodriguez says. "If you get away, it's because they let you go, so they can get you later."
Sequels have Rodriguez busy, but he'd welcome a big studio project
Robert Rodriguez has so many movie projects going at one time, it makes his head spin.
The projects "are always moving and shifting. What AM I doing this year?" The filmmaker laughs.
After today's release of "Predators" and "Machete" in September, sequels are on his plate, as are original ideas, such as the sci-fi movie "Nerveracker," which he started writing about 12 years ago.
He recently turned in a script for his successful "Spy Kids" series titled "Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World." By next year's release, it will have been 10 years since 2001's original "Spy Kids."
"It's a reboot of my own series," Rodriguez, 42, says. A lot of parents tell him that they just introduced their children to the series. Perfect timing for another installment.
"It's a rich world. I worried that it would feel like dipping into the old well, but it doesn't. It feels very fresh," he says.
Another sequel, "Sin City 2," is a "possibility" at this point. A script is being written, Rodriguez says. "We totally want to do it."
"Sin City," a multistory omnibus, was released in 2005 and co-starred Brittany Murphy, who died in December.
"We're really sad about losing Brittany, and we're wondering what we will do there," Rodriguez says. "She's in all the stories."
Props are being made for "Nerveracker," and the director says it's "in the tubes" for next year.
Rodriguez, who makes his movies inexpensively and mostly independently through his Austin-based Troublemaker Studios, says he wouldn't mind making a larger franchise picture for a studio to use as a selling point to make more movies he's passionate about.
"It's kind of good to get out of the marginalization I'm in," he says. "I make specific types of movies for a certain budget that hit target audiences very well. They're always playing my movies on cable because they're the kinds of movies guys like to watch over and over.
"But now that I've started my own company where I can actually finance my own films, I can't make really big ones. So I might venture out and do a bigger picture. I've been offered those a lot, but I never did them. But I think it would be good for my core business to break out of that, do something that's really successful so people know my name. I could tag that onto all my smaller films: ‘From the director of (big humongous movie),' and that would lift everything else up with it."